This is not a happy time for the nuclear industry. The unfolding fallout of the Fukushima Daiichi plant's cooling system failure in Japan comes as the world remembers, 25 years on, the disaster at Chernobyl.
As a result, the spot price of uranium, the fuel for nuclear reactors, has dropped from US$73 a pound in February to about $55. The fall comes just as uranium was recovering from a substantial correction suffered after it reached its all-time high of $138 in 2007. The onset of the economic downturn put an end to that particular run, as the price fell to $45 a pound by mid-2008, according to data from TradeTech, a nuclear industry price analysis unit.
The question now is whether this is a temporary setback, or whether uranium will again fall into the trough where it languished for much of the 1980s and 1990s, when it traded for less than $10 a pound.
At the time, the end of the Cold War and the post-Chernobyl decline of new power-station construction had muted demand. A steady supply of uranium from scrapped nuclear weapons also weighed on the price.
But in recent years its fortunes began to change. The construction of new plants and talk of a "nuclear renaissance" nudged it above $20 a pound a decade ago. But mining is a conservative industry, reluctant to invest in new operations until a price trend proves to be sustainable.
Today, fewer than 100 uranium mines exist in the world, to supply about 440 reactors globally. By comparison, the US state of Kentucky alone has more than 400 coal mines.
At the moment, global demand for uranium runs at about 68,000 tonnes a year, according to the World Nuclear Association. This is expected to rise by about 33 per cent over the next decade, as new stations come online. The trouble is, mines supply only about 55,000 tonnes a year - the rest is being sourced from decommissioned weapons and used fuel stocks.
In the meantime, the demand for nuclear power has been only slightly crimped by events in Japan.
China's nuclear power generation is set to triple by 2020, with about 70 reactors on the drawing board. India, which already has 20 operating reactors, has five under construction with plans for more.
The US gets half its fuelling requirements from decommissioned Soviet-era nuclear weapons, under the so-called "megatonnes for megawatts" programme. This ends in 2013, however, and the entire uranium requirement for the US's existing 104 reactors will have to be bought on the spot market.
Some relief will come from newer-generation reactors that also make use of spent fuel - such as that left sitting in tanks at Fukushima, a source of a lot of trouble at the plant. Instead of storing spent fuel, newer plants will simply burn it. But this is unlikely to do much about the looming uranium shortage.
Far from uniting the anti-nuclear lobby, the Japan incident has done even more to polarise it.
"The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power," said George Monbiot, a cheerleader for the UK environmental movement.
Germany has been the most emphatic in its reaction to the Fukushima disaster by declaring a full exit from nuclear power, which now provides about a quarter of its energy. But the government has yet to schedule the final switch-off, or to spell out how precisely it will replace lost generating capacity.
All in all, about 300 new reactors are being planned for the coming decade, including a significant number in the Middle East. Countries such as the UAE, Turkey and Jordan have plans for atomic energy.
"We don't have any other alternative," said Youcef Yousfi, the Algerian minister of energy and mines.
Major oil producers have abundant stocks of crude but the indirect cost of diverting oil from exports to domestic electricity consumption has made alternative power generation attractive.
The argument for nuclear energy is compelling. One tonne of natural uranium can produce more than 40 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. This is equal to the burning of 16,000 tonnes of coal or 80,000 barrels of oil, according to US department of energy figures.
Proven uranium reserves are in the region of 5 million tonnes, a quarter of which is found in Australia, the world's largest producer.
Other significant reserves are in Kazakhstan, Canada and Namibia. And it is likely that more economically viable deposits will be found.
Kazakhstan in particular has vast reserves that could double the entire global production.
And even if uranium does achieve the heights predicted by some analysts - up to $500 a pound according to the most optimistic projections - it will still offer a significant economic discount to fossil fuels.
The arguments for and against nuclear energy will continue in the west. But it is clear the pace of building new plants in China, India and the Middle East will make these debates almost irrelevant.
Instead, the availability of uranium and its cost are likely to play a greater role in the expansion of nuclear energy than the squabbling between competing factions of environmentalists.
The question we are facing is not whether nuclear energy is going to be part of our future; it's about how to ensure a steady supply of uranium.
* with agencies